Commuting Will Not Be the Same as It Was before COVID

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has brought many changes to this country and the world at large.  One change is having an effect on major metropolitan areas such as New York (including New Jersey), Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago: a potentially momentous change in commuting habits.  Until the virus hit, millions of commuters would get on a train early in the morning and head to their offices five days a week, only to return home by the same route late in the afternoon or sometime in the evening.

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All NY Commuter Lines Overtaxed

Having a hard job finding a seat on  your train to Manhattan?  You’re not alone; all of the railroads serving the metropolitan area are having trouble coping with increasing ridership, according to an article on radio station WNYC’s Transportation Nation website by Jim O’Grady, and also reported on the air on February 25.  Ridership on all lines is at or close to record levels, boosted by a recovering economy and congested  highways with ever-increasing tolls.  There are various ways to cope with the ridership, but each of the 3 railroads serving New York’s suburbs has unique challenges.  For NJ Transit, the main problem is capacity of the two-track Hudson River tunnels through which all of its trains must enter Manhattan.  It’s impossible to add more trains in peak hours, so the railroad has invested in “multilevel” equipment that provides more seats, but also makes it difficult for riders to find standing space when all the seats are full, as they often are.  NJT spokesperson Nancy Snyder said the railroad would buy still more multilevel cars, and would also emphasize NJT’s light-rail system, which, she said, siphons riders off the rail system and onto the PATH rapid-transit system, thus providing an alternate route into Manhattan.  The Long Island Rail Road, also suffering from capacity problems, would like to make its trains longer, but many platforms won’t accommodate longer trains; riders might have to walk through several cars to reach an open door.  In addition, the LIRR says that it has insufficient yard capacity to store longer or additional trains. Metro-North Railroad, the region’s third major operator, says that extra-high equipment with 2 levels of seating is not an option: the tunnels leading to the railroad’s Grand Central Terminal are too low to allow higher equipment.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that crowding on NJ Transit might be alleviated if the railroad would emphasize service to its Hoboken gateway, from which passengers can reach Manhattan via PATH and ferry services.  This could be done by adding trains to Hoboken and reducing the relative cost of travel via Hoboken compared to Penn Station in Manhattan.

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Commuter Tax Benefit to Decrease Under Present Law

According to a press release from TransitCenter, Inc. (a nonprofit provider of commuter benefit programs), a provision in the 2009 federal stimulus bill increased the maximum pretax deduction that workers could apply toward monthly transit commuting costs from $120 to $230.  This level is the same as that allowed for parking expenses for those who drive to work.  However, the transit provision is set to expire at the end of 2010, causing the transit deduction to revert to $120; the allowable parking deduction would remain at $230.  Loss of this benefit would cause a net increase in riders’ commutation costs of up to 22% (assuming the national average income tax marginal rate of 31.6%).  This would put further pressure on commuter operators, who have been coping with ridership declines during the recession.